The recent revelations about payments made by European governments to secure the release of hostages held by ISIS raise a fascinating set of issues and an apparent moral dilemma. In a couple of extended, detailed, and carefully researched articles published by The New York Times, Rukmini Callimachi documents the extent of the complicity between various European nations and international terrorist organizations. It is estimated that al-Qaeda and its direct affiliates have made $125 million from kidnappings since 2008, including $66 million in the last year alone, which may account for about half of the operating budget of these groups.
The case of ISIS is even more extreme. Emerging out of the chaos of the Syrian civil war, the group that has come to be known as ISIL or ISIS, or the more ontological IS, gradually captured and gathered together twenty-three foreign hostages from twelve countries, the majority of them Europeans. (This is not counting the forty-six Turks and three Iraqis taken during the fall of Mosul in June this year.) They were initially held in a prison under the Children’s Hospital of Aleppo and subsequently transferred to a building outside an oil installation in Raqqa in eastern Syria, the current capital of ISIS.
Notably, the two American and two British hostages—James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines, and Alan Henning—who were horrifically beheaded between mid-August and early October of this year were in this group, as was a Russian captive, Sergey Gorbunov, who was shot dead last spring, after it became clear the Russian government had little interest in his case.
So where are all the rest, who mostly came from continental Europe? For the most part, safely back home because their governments negotiated with ISIS for their release. Details are murky, but it would appear that, from among the twenty-three, almost 6 million euros was paid for the release of three Spanish aid workers, followed by a reported $18 million for four French journalists, and substantial payments for an Italian aid worker, and a Danish photojournalist, who was released after the family apparently raised the money for the ransom. (It should also be noted that, according to press reports, the forty-six Turkish hostages and the three Iraqis may have been released in a prison swap for 180 Islamic militants—including two British jihadists, Shabazz Suleman and Hisham Folkard, being held by Turkish authorities. President Erdogan of Turkey denied that any ransom had been paid, but was rather cagey about the details of the negotiations.)
According to Callimachi’s Times article, only three members of the original group remain in captivity, all with the same nationalities as those who have been beheaded: Peter Kassig, an American in his mid-twenties, who was named last month in Alan Henning’s execution video as the next victim [Editor’s note: See November 16 update at the end of this article]; John Cantlie, a British photojournalist in his early forties, who has become (under obvious duress) a video propagandist for ISIS; and an unidentified American woman.
As is well known, both the US and UK governments have long had a policy of not making ransom payments to terrorist groups and have refused to negotiate with ISIS. In fact, the US government actively pressured the family of at least one hostage, James Foley, not to engage in its own negotiation. In 2012, David S. Cohen, the US Under Secretary for Terrorism and Finance Intelligence, outlined the rationale: “Ransom payments lead to future kidnappings, and future kidnappings lead to additional ransom payments. And it all builds the capacity of terrorist organizations to conduct attacks.” Cohen added that, “We recognize the real and painful choice that is involved in every hostage situation…but believe that so many lives are at risk of terrorist violence around the globe that the equation tips decidedly in favor of a ‘no concessions’ policy.”
But this policy is not an outlier; in recent years it has been given official support by European governments as well. In 2013, British Prime Minister David Cameron placed the issue of ransom payments at the center of the UK’s presidency of the G8, during which he persuaded other leaders to sign a communiqué stating that ransoms must not be paid to groups declared to be terrorists because such payments have become a major source of revenue for such groups. The communiqué was subsequently backed up by a UN Security Council resolution.
It would appear then that governments like the Spanish, the French, and the Italian, have simply found other, more clandestine and covert ways of making such payments, through sudden increases in aid budgets and the like. The next move these governments make is simply to deny that such payments have been made, which at the very least is consistent with the earlier practice of European governments when negotiating the release of hostages taken by al-Qaeda in North Africa (which they also often officially denied).
All of this suggests a moral dilemma: Is it better to (a) remain morally consistent, refuse negotiation and ransom payment to an allegedly evil organization, but watch your citizens get beheaded? Or (b) sign up to a principled agreement not to negotiate with “terrorists,” but then negotiate nonetheless, pay a large amount of money to release the citizens of your country, and simply deny the fact publicly?
In this case, I would argue that (b) is the best and wisest course of action. Consider the following scenario. Imagine that when the Spanish, French, and other governments began to negotiate with ISIS, the responsible parties in the UK and US did so as well. Based on what we know of the European negotiations, it seems likely that the lives of Foley, Sotloff, Haines, and Henning could have been spared. Also, Peter Kassig could be back in US and not threatened with a very likely beheading, and the voluble John Cantlie could hopefully return quietly to life in the UK. This would have required paying some money, probably quite a lot of money. Some reports indicated that ISIS had asked for 100 million euros for James Foley, but wasn’t he worth that much? European soccer players are traded for such sums. In October, the Pentagon reported that it had spent $1.1 billion on military operations since the offensive against ISIS began last summer.
In this way, the horrific spectacle of videoed beheadings of Western captives could have been avoided—executions that led to principled proclamations of the “pure evil” of ISIS on the part of David Cameron and Barack Obama and contributed in significant part to the subsequent, wildly expensive, and very probably ineffective policy of air strikes on ISIS in Syria. Absent these beheadings, the strikes in Syria might have been averted or at least conducted in a more covert, less febrile, and hysterical atmosphere.
What would the cost of these negotiations have been to US and British strategic aims in Syria? It would amount to a further large transfer of funds to ISIS, possibly giving the group funds that it could then use to launch further attacks in Syria or Iraq or elsewhere. But we know that the group commands considerable resources of its own, regardless of whether it receives hostage payments from the US and the UK. Moreover, as David Cohen acknowledged in 2012, successful negotiations for ransom can sometimes be carried out while then preventing the group in question from accessing the funds.
Another criticism of such payments is that they would encourage even more kidnappings of American and British nationals in the future. But note that I am not suggesting that Western governments adopt an official policy of paying ransoms. To do so would be to advertise to terrorist groups that they are welcome to kidnap our citizens and be rewarded for it. The effectiveness of the strategy depends on the fact that it is not openly acknowledged, and indeed that it is repeatedly repudiated in official statements and in international agreements by the governments in question.
The reader at this point will object that I am making an argument for hypocrisy. To which I would simply agree. In the case at hand (which does not mean all cases), I would have urged the US and UK governments to relentlessly negotiate with ISIS, to pay whatever price needed to be paid, secure the safe return of citizens, and then—like the French and Spanish—simply to deny that such negotiations ever took place. In fact, I would counsel that governments remain steely-eyed and consistent in their hypocrisy through campaigns of disinformation regarding such ransom arrangements. This might very well sow confusion among the terror groups themselves, which would be no bad thing. It seems to me that ISIS has been rather highly skilled in using false information and propaganda and that Western governments would be wise to use exactly the same tactics as a counter-strategy against ISIS.
As David Runciman has argued in Political Hypocrisy, politics is a continual dance of claims of hypocrisy and anti-hypocrisy, where politicians seeking power will demand a clean-up of an allegedly corrupt governmental system, bringing a new broom to get rid of all the old dirt. We all know the moves in this dance: the politician who claims to be morally opposed to all forms of hypocrisy perhaps obtains power, only some years later to be ousted from power amid fresh claims of hypocrisy from a new anti-corruption campaigner. Yet perhaps it is the desire for a politics without hypocrisy that is finally hypocritical and which leads to cynicism and the ritual throwing up of hands: “Oh, they are all the same, these politicians, they are all bloody hypocrites!”
If Runciman is right, it may be better to think of hostage negotiations with ISIS less as a matter of moral consistency, than as a case for political hypocrisy. But that is preferable to the opposite position: namely, the empty moral sanctimoniousness of the Cameron and Obama governments, which has arguably led to avoidable beheadings and futile bombings. As of this writing, the American hostage Peter Kassig is believed to be still alive; some have raised the possibility that a secret negotiation could be underway. If that is the case, one can only hope that perhaps the US government has begun to recognize the error of its rigid policy.
Of all the ISIS victims, I think of Alan Henning, the utterly decent former cab-driver from Salford in Greater Manchester, who used his own savings to buy an ambulance because he was so moved and troubled at the flight of Syrian refugees. Wouldn’t just a bit of political hypocrisy have saved his life? Wouldn’t negotiating for his release have been the right thing to do?
Update: November 16
In a somber and disturbing development to this story, it was widely reported on November 16 that Peter Kassig has been beheaded, along with a number of captured Syrian soldiers. Rukmini Callimachi, whose stories provided the initial basis for my article, reports for The New York Times that a sixteen-minute video has been released which alleges to show the severed head of Kassig at the feet of “Jihadi John,” the same British citizen who it is thought to have carried out the beheadings of Foley, Sotloff, Henning, and Haines. It has also been reported that families of American hostages were initially told that they would be prosecuted if they paid a ransom and Foley’s parents (and brother) have in comments to the media expressed frustration at how the US government handled their son’s abduction. One wonders at the wisdom of a policy of refusing negotiation at all costs.